## The Inspiration-o-meter

Molly Fitzpatrick, "Know. Here. More. The top 100 words used in 2015 commencement speeches are oddly inspiring, even out of context", Fusion 5/21/2015:

Is there a formula for inspiration? If so it involves these words: know, here, more, life. They top the list of the 100 most common words used in commencement speeches this year.

We analyzed the transcripts of 30 high-profile commencement addresses delivered this spring. […]

Commencement speakers talk more about the students they’re addressing than themselves, but only barely. We found that the second-person pronouns “you,” “your,” and “yours” were used just 4.7% more than the first-person pronouns “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.” […]

Here are the top 100 words in order, ranked by the number of times they were used across all 30 speeches. Prepare your graduation ceremony bingo cards accordingly:

For about half of their 30 speeches, the links provided just went to youtube or other video recordings. With some additional web searches, I was able to find transcripts (or scripts "as prepared for delivery") for a total of 21 of the 30 speeches:

So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I thought I'd look at some individual differences.

First, that pronoun thing. My sample was a bit more first-person-singular oriented overall — the totals were

you|your|yours  1800
I|me|my|mine 1740

for a proportional difference of 1800/1740 = 1.0345, or about 3.5%.

But there were big individual differences. Here are the 21 speeches sorted (in descending order) by the ratio of first person singular pronouns to second person pronouns:

   NAME              NWords N1PS  N2P  1PS%  2P%  2P/1SP
Kenneth Feinberg     1409    27   67   1.92  4.76  2.48
Evan Spiegel         1250    28   54   2.24  4.32  1.93
Alan Alda            2195    54  102   2.46  4.65  1.89
Barack Obama         3661    67  114   1.83  3.11  1.70
George Bush          1701    56   86   3.29  5.06  1.54
Blase Cupich         2323    51   78   2.20  3.36  1.53
Jorge Ramos          1364    43   52   3.15  3.81  1.21
Samantha Power       4241    79   94   1.86  2.22  1.19
Bill Nye             2654    51   60   1.92  2.26  1.18
Jill Biden           1736    53   61   3.05  3.51  1.15
Mitt Romney          2617    66   74   2.52  2.83  1.12
Katie Couric         4183   120  132   2.87  3.16  1.10
Madeleine Albright   2324    63   69   2.71  2.96  1.10
Michelle Obama       3600   107  111   2.97  3.08  1.04
Colin Powell         1843    80   71   4.34  3.85  0.89
Joe Biden            4760   194  162   4.08  3.40  0.84
Ken Burns            2601    38   30   1.46  1.15  0.79
Matt McConaughey     5976   245  181   4.10  3.03  0.74
Tim Cook             2183    84   55   3.85  2.52  0.65
Meredith Viera       2774   140   91   5.05  3.28  0.65
Charles Bolden       1723    94   56   5.46  3.25  0.60

What about those inspirational words? Again, big differences. Here's know:

  NAME            NWords N Per1000
Alan Alda          2195 18 8.20
Jorge Ramos        1364  8 5.87
Joe Biden          4760 26 5.46
Jill Biden         1736  8 4.61
George Bush        1701  6 3.53
Meredith Viera     2774  9 3.24
Matt McConaughey   5976 19 3.18
Katie Couric       4183 11 2.63
Evan Spiegel       1250  3 2.40
Tim Cook           2183  5 2.29
Bill Nye           2654  6 2.26
Michelle Obama     3600  8 2.22
Mitt Romney        2617  5 1.91
Barack Obama       3661  7 1.91
Charles Bolden     1723  3 1.74
Blase Cupich       2323  4 1.72
Samantha Power     4241  7 1.65
Colin Powell       1843  3 1.63
Ken Burns          2601  2 0.77
Kenneth Feinberg   1409  1 0.71


Here's here:

  NAME            NWords N Per1000
Barack Obama       3661 23 6.28
Charles Bolden     1723  9 5.22
Michelle Obama     3600 15 4.17
Jill Biden         1736  7 4.03
Meredith Viera     2774 11 3.97
George Bush        1701  6 3.53
Joe Biden          4760 16 3.36
Jorge Ramos        1364  4 2.93
Kenneth Feinberg   1409  4 2.84
Bill Nye           2654  7 2.64
Samantha Power     4241 10 2.36
Ken Burns          2601  6 2.31
Tim Cook           2183  5 2.29
Blase Cupich       2323  5 2.15
Colin Powell       1843  3 1.63
Katie Couric       4183  6 1.43
Alan Alda          2195  3 1.37
Mitt Romney        2617  3 1.15
Matt McConaughey   5976  5 0.84
Evan Spiegel       1250  1 0.80


But this is getting tiresome. Let's ask, instead, about the overall rate of usage of all 100 "inspirational" words — this defines a sort of Inspiration-o-meter. How does everybody score?

NAME             NWords NI-Words  %I-Words
Barack Obama       3661    616     16.83%
Alan Alda          2195    359     16.36%
Jill Biden         1736    279     16.07%
Colin Powell       1843    267     14.49%
Michelle Obama     3600    505     14.03%
Tim Cook           2183    290     13.28%
Meredith Viera     2774    368     13.27%
Charles Bolden     1723    228     13.23%
Kenneth Feinberg   1409    182     12.92%
Joe Biden          4760    615     12.92%
Matt McConaughey   5976    759     12.70%
George Bush        1701    216     12.70%
Jorge Ramos        1364    172     12.61%
Bill Nye           2654    326     12.28%
Katie Couric       4183    498     11.91%
Evan Spiegel       1250    147     11.76%
Samantha Power     4241    472     11.13%
Mitt Romney        2617    289     11.04%
Blase Cupich       2323    246     10.59%
Ken Burns          2601    271     10.42%


Obama('s speechwriter) wins! I'm not sure whether that's something for the president's team to be proud of or ashamed of.

(In fact we should really change the list of  Top-whatever I-Words to reflect not just the overall rates in graduation speeches, but rates in graduation speeches compared to rates in other texts. But that's an experiment for another breakfast…)

1. ### Ginger Yellow said,

May 28, 2015 @ 7:03 am

Is there a formula for inspiration?

Genius – perspiration, isn't it?

[(myl) Curiously, neither genius nor perspiration occurs in the 21 commencement addresses surveyed.]

2. ### cs said,

May 28, 2015 @ 8:22 am

On the first chart, should't the last column be 2P/1P? Or are the other columns labeled wrong?

[(myl) Oops. Fixed now.]

3. ### Chips Mackinolty said,

May 28, 2015 @ 8:37 am

Commencement addresses? To me they seem like a peculiarly USA artefact, but I get the general idea. Confession? I have been a speechwriter on and off for many years. For politicians, elected and unelected. And for others. Given the nature of such speeches, it is completely unsurprising that the most common words are generally positive in feel, and god forbid that I trawl through the speeches to be certain of this: I would bet the house that they are all of that nature. Positive, affirming and generally uplifting.
So what? My bet would also be that the “you,” “your,” and “yours” were used just slightly more than the first-person pronouns “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.” Any half competent speechwriter will write to compare, favourably, the audience with positive information about the speech giver and the audience itself. Getting the audience to identify with the speaker. Guess what? About a 50:50 ratio, which is what this study shows. Hardly rocket science.
I have been watching this debate in LL and elsewhere and regard it as a largely sterile and dreary field of research and polemic, especially as we approach an era where set piece speeches/responses are largely mediated by speechwriters rather than the speakers themselves. So our talent is saying “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine” too often? Well, we will tone it down and shift the statistics so we look like a far more inclusive speaker.
For the speechwriter (and speaker), it then becomes a nuts and bolts exercise.
It may well be that it is worth researching areas such as race/gender specific language in public speaking as a reflection of changing mores/politics. But don't forget these may be as much artefacts of the speechwriters and market research as the genuine usage of the speech givers.
There are serious limits in linguists' trawling through word frequency lists to add to our understanding of how public life works.

[(myl) I'm not sure what you're arguing against, but I believe that you've misunderstood the discussion that you're reacting against.

The arguments about pronouns didn't start with "linguists' trawling through word frequency lists". Rather, the starting point was political pundits who made unsupported assertions about Barack Obama's allegedly excessive use of first-person singular pronouns. I (and others) have intervened to (1) show that these claims are false, and indeed the opposite of the truth, in that Obama's usage of first singular pronouns is actually on the low side; and (2) that the asserted implications about a relationship between pronoun usage and narcissistic personality characteristics are nonsense in any case.

Also, as it happens, what this "study" shows is not "a 50:50 ratio" between first-singular and second person pronouns, but rather a range of ratios differing by a factor of more than 4, from 2.48/1 to 0.6/1. Presumably this does reflect a range of differences in the speakers' rhetorical styles, though admittedly this should be the start of a discussion, not the end of one.

So in this context, what is your point? Just that you don't like numbers, and can't be bothered to look at the content of a discussion once your hackles have been raised by encountering some?]

4. ### Ralph Hickok said,

May 28, 2015 @ 11:25 am

They didn't include De Niro's speech, which seems to have been the most widely reported.

5. ### Doreen said,

May 28, 2015 @ 11:31 am

Wait, so the, a/an, of and the like aren't words, according to this journalist?

[(myl) There's no explanation of the method that they used. Clearly some set of "stop words" must have been eliminated. It's possible that some kind of stemming was done, but probably not, since there are some inflected forms in the list. This lack is irresponsible, in my opinion, even in a mass-media article. ]

6. ### shubert said,

May 28, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

the, a/an, of are "choice less" words while would, don't… are inclinable, opposing to wouldn't, do. I may be wrong on this.

7. ### J. W. Brewer said,

May 28, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

It's harder to do when you have to guess at the words they thought were so common as not to be worth including, but it would be useful to do the follow-up project noted above of comparison to a (suitably adjusted) list of common words outside the specific genre/context. I note just as a first-glance eyeball comparison that the seven most common nouns on the list linked above (at least granted the dodgy assumption that "people" is a form of the lemma "person") are also all on the top ten in the list of most common nouns here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Most_common_words_in_English#Nouns. Indeed, it is probably not hard by looking as such ordinary word frequency lists (or a Swadesh list or something similar) to find some sort of profound and/or "inspirational" subtext if you put yourself in the right frame of mind . . .

8. ### Rubrick said,

May 28, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

People there, like here, don't know life. No more! Get up, world! Make time today — now!

9. ### maidhc said,

May 28, 2015 @ 7:10 pm

The hidden motivation behind commencement speeches is to get the graduates to feel so positive toward their alma mater that they sign up for the alumni association, which will make it easier for the university to solicit donations from them.

10. ### Alan Palmer said,

May 29, 2015 @ 6:16 am

Ah! After reading through this post and its comments I've realised I'd been misunderstanding the meaning of 'commencement speeches'. I had assumed that they were held at the commencement of a student's college life, rather than at the end, on graduation.

11. ### shubert said,

May 29, 2015 @ 6:55 am

commencement
1.a beginning or start:
2.NORTH AMERICAN
a ceremony in which degrees or diplomas are conferred on graduating students: synonyms: graduation

12. ### Graeme said,

June 2, 2015 @ 4:39 am

Yes, Shubert. What for the rest of the world is an ending, a vale-dictory, the US labels a new beginning.

Mind you the 'rah rah, take a bow, such hard work, such lifelong friendships forged, now go forth the world is your oyster' speech on collecting testamurs seems mind-numbingly universal.